Saturday, May 31, 2014

Something Missing

He didn’t need to recount them. There were only 99, and he only had to quickly scan back over them to know which one wasn’t there. He knew each one by name and he held each one in his heart, far more precious to him than any market value a stranger would assign. And it was the little one who had gone astray the jaunty, skittish one with one black leg and a black patch on his face that always gave him a cock-eyed look. The shepherd’s heart ached for his missing lamb. He knew just how much trouble waited out there for someone so small and defenceless: wild beasts that would lust for the taste of his flesh, treacherous paths where small feet could slip and stray in the uncertain moonlight, the perils of fear and loneliness pressing in upon him and overwhelming him with terror. There were steep hillsides and strongly flowing streams and an all-devouring wilderness to swallow up the tiny bleating of his despair.

Steeling himself to go out and face the bitter night that was fast closing in, and gazing anxiously at the storm clouds that were gathering even faster, the shepherd made his preparations. He made sure that the rest of the flock were secure, huddled together, wool against wool for warmth, with a strong stout fence around them that no predator could breach, then he left the ninety nine safely penned against his return, girded his loins, took up his crook, tightly fastened his cloak, and went forth into the darkness.

It was a terrible night. Humanly he thought of the warmth of a fire, and the comfort of having other men nearby. He knew how they would laugh at him, their scorn blunted only by a hint of awe at his stubbornness. None of them would do this. Why would a man who had 99 others put his life on the line for a mere sheep? It made no sense, it wore no logic; for love will always transcend logic, and make chaos of the heart’s account books. It is such a debt that the whole world’s wealth counts as nothing in the balance; and no hireling shepherd could ever understand. And holding such love up before him, like a lantern to mark his path, he turned away from all the temptations of warmth and laughter, and set his face towards the icy wind that raked its talons across him.

He never told the story of that night’s suffering: the stones that bruised his feet, the steep paths that mocked his exhaustion, the sharp coldness of the rising streams he crossed. Nor did he speak of the haunting fear that he might already be too late, or that even his keen hearing might miss the sound of cries while the storm beat its fury down upon him. But as the storms eventually blew over, and the first paleness before dawn touched the sky, he found his missing lamb, caught in a thornbush that leant over a terrible chasm. With infinite gentleness he soothed its struggles, for how do you explain to a feckless lamb that the very thorns that are hurting it are its only protection from a dreadful fall? There was blood on his hands and feet, and a gash upon his side by the time his lamb was safe. But there was no pain in his eyes as he lifted it tenderly to his shoulders, only a joy too bright too look upon, for the lost had been found, and his own was restored to him. And none who saw the gladness on his face as he returned had any need to ask if it was worth what it had cost. They only marvelled at his love!

Saturday, May 24, 2014

A Time to Dance

In the beginning they danced for the wonder and the joy of it all. The morning stars sang together, and the greater light and the lesser light danced in their orbits of wonder. Creation was wonderfully fair, and the love of the Creator shone out through every grass blade and blossoming twig. The waters danced in the streams and the rivers, and the great waters moved in harmony. The mighty beasts and the tiny ones woke into gladness. And it was very, very good.

But sorrow came with sin, and there was grief and pain and horror, and Death, who immobilises all dancing, made his terrible presence felt. Ruin and decay appeared, step by grief-filled step, and all things under the sun fell away from glory. And the deepest ruin was in the heart of man, where Death had set up his throne, and ruled all things towards a grim and bitter misery. And dancing was rare, except for the frantic gyrations with which the flesh would try to forget, for a few moments, its grinding mortality. But here and there, where the hints of a better Springtime broke through, where the smile of the Father, who had not forgotten his world, was still reflected in the sunshine and the blessed rain, and the soft light of the stars in the evening, hearts would lift in praise, and, for a faltering footstep or two, they would stumble in and out of the everlasting dance.

And the ages passed, and the hearts of men grew weary, and death had dominion. But in the darkest shadows a promise danced, and the time came for the promise to be fulfilled. And so he came down from heaven, God himself, and his love danced through every word and action, power and redemption and mercy dancing out a story so glorious that those who had eyes to see were overcome with wonder. And he danced, with feet weighed down with every dreadful burden of our mortality, into confrontation with Death. And Death, who not abide the dance or the promise, pinned him down with dreadful nails, to finish the dance and silence the music of heaven once and for all.

But it could not be. For Life broke Death, sin was accounted for, and, on that glorious Resurrection morning, he danced out of the tomb, bringing glory and fulfilment with him, and invited all of humanity to join in the new dance with him. And they danced their way through hardship and persecution, through discouragement and loss, and the world was not worthy of them. And still they dance to the music of heaven, the love-song of the Father, though they stumble and falter in their human clumsiness, for they have seen the beauty of their Christ, and they would seek to dance his steps all the days of their lives.

And they dance in hope, for they know that one day all things will be restored, and there will be a new heaven and a new earth fresh from the hand of the Creator. And the morning stars will sing again, and there will be no need of sun and moon, for God himself will be their light, and by that light, enthralled by the revelation of his beauty, they shall dance out his praise for all eternity.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

A time to mourn

They expected him to be glad, because they hadn’t understood. Wasn’t it in the nature of things for a man to rejoice when his enemy was cast down? Didn’t a man lift up his heart at the destruction of one who had harassed him for years, and pursued him with a personal malice that went far beyond the limits of sanity, a malice that harried him into the desert wastelands, threw spears at him, took away his wife, and did everything that the king of a small country could possibly do to get rid of him? Everyone knew that it was only by some miracle of divine preservation that David was still alive. Saul had used every last, stretched atom of his bitter, twisted powers to destroy him, surely it was only normal that David would be glad to hear that he was gone?

The man who brought the news certainly thought so. Worn with the effort of trying to be the first with the news, fully expecting to be rewarded, he arrived torn and dishevelled, and prostrated himself at David’s feet, eager to honour the apparent new king. At David’s urging he repeated his story in full, telling how Jonathan and his brothers had been killed by the Philistines, and how, in the face of total defeat, Saul had despaired of his own life and looked for death. Then, eager to ingratiate himself with the new king, he embroidered the story of Saul’s final moments, claiming that he, himself, at Saul’s urging, had struck the fatal blow!

It was a fatal mistake. David was outraged at his temerity, that he, an Amalekite, an outsider, a member of an accursed race, had dared to strike down the king Israel, the anointed of God! Saul, in his torment and confusion had been a bitter enemy, but that was not how David perceived him. To David, Saul was the chosen of God, the first King of Israel, anointed and uniquely set apart. If his end had been ignominious, his beginning had been glorious: he had led Israel to victory and had sought to follow the Lord, even when he had totally misunderstood what God required. He had never renounced the Lord, or fallen into the desperate idolatry that was the besetting sin of his countrymen. And he had been the father of David’s dearest friend. There was no way he could allow the self-confessed murderer of Saul to survive.

Instead, mourning deeply, David wrote a lament for the fallen king. “Your glory, Oh Israel, lies slain on the heights. How the mighty have fallen!” He could not despise his enemy or rejoice over his defeat. Although Saul had made his life so difficult, he did not see this as a reason to despise or fear him; why should he when he had already had the Lord’s sure promise that one day he would be king in Saul’s place? The kingship was a gift and honour given by God, a sacred thing which no one should lay rough hands upon. Had they not seen, had they not known, that even when Saul was in his power, David would not raise his hand against him? The death of Saul was not a time of rejoicing, but a time to mourn.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

A Love Story

By the first time she saw then handsome stranger, he was already in love with her younger sister, and her heart ached with the twisting bitterness of her own inferiority, as once again, seemingly without any effort, Rachel gained the prize, simply because she was born beautiful. Why would any man give a passing glance at herself when Rachel was there? And yet she loved him too, for not only was he very attractive, he was kind and thoughtful, and she sensed that there was a deep hunger in his heart for God, that strange dissatisfaction which she recognised so well, because her whole life was a desperate prayer for blessing. But within a month he was betrothed to her sister, and her father had wrung from the besotted man an agreement to work seven years for Rachel’s bride price. Only for Rachel would a man pay so much!

So she tucked her dreams away, like so many lesser dreams before, and got on with the chores of everyday. And if sometimes she was a bit harsher than she should be? Well, it’s hard to keep all that disappointment buried inside.

But she had reckoned without her father. He had another plan, not out of any consideration for Leah, but because he was consumed by the irresistible desire to drive an even better bargain, and rid himself of the encumbrance of an unmarriageable daughter at the same time. So there she was, heavily veiled, standing by Jacob’s side as they were married, and she had never been so terrified as she was then, marrying the man of her dreams, her heart’s desire, and wondering just how angry he would be when he woke up in the morning and found he had been cheated.

And Jacob was angry, but not with her. He knew that her father was responsible, but her father wasn’t concerned. He had planned it out already, and at the end of Leah’s marriage week Jacob married Rachel, in return for another seven years labour. And it was Rachel that he loved.

But Leah discovered, to her own astonishment, that she had one gift that Rachel lacked – fertility, and she bore Jacob fine sons. But the rivalry between the sisters continued for many years, competition so fierce that they even had their maidservants bear Jacob’s children, as they tried to keep score between themselves. And still, despite all, Jacob loved Rachel best.

Finally, Rachel died in childbirth, and the years of their painful rivalry were over. But Jacob loved Rachel’s sons better than Leah’s, for they were all he had left of the woman he had adored. But Leah no longer ached and strained. She had as much of Jacob as he was able to give her, and now that was enough, for through the bitter years she had learned that though her father treated her as valueless trade goods, and her husband saw her as his second best wife, she had found that God loved her, and in Him there was no second best. And somewhere in those final years the Spirit of God had whispered a truth into her heart that made her breath stop and her eyes overflow. It was not from Rachel’s sons, fine men that they were, that redemption was to come, but from the line of her own son, Judah. It was Leah, despised, overlooked Leah, who would be a foremother of the King that God had promised.

Saturday, May 03, 2014

The Silence of God

It should have felt triumphant. I had stood there in the power and authority of the Lord, and seen the fire fall from heaven at my word! For a moment I had felt all-powerful, as though I walked above the earth as angels walk (though frightened also by the power of such fire as could burn the very water in the trenches). At my command the awed people had taken and slaughtered every last one of those pagan priests and prophets, and I felt the exaltation of victory. I saw the rains come to relieve the great drought, and, caught up in the exultant power of the Lord, I had run back, as fast as any horse, all the way to Jezreel.

But I was still flesh and blood, and as that extraordinary empowering withdrew from me, I was lost, feeble and alone. Only now, looking back, do I realise the depths of the temptation to power and glory, the temptation to demand the right to be something more than a humble and obedient servant of the Most High. Very quickly I learned that the power, courage and authority with which I had challenged, and defeated, the idolaters was not my own. When Jezebel responded to her defeat with threats against my own life, the only strength I found was the strength to run away as far as possible. Without the spectacular intervention of God, I was as weak and frail as the most vulnerable person in Israel. And so I fled.

I fled to Horeb. This was the place where God had constituted Israel, this was the place where Moses was confirmed in his leadership by some vision of the Lord Himself, the Lord whose face cannot be seen by any living man. Maybe history would repeat itself and I could become another Moses? After all, there had never been leaders of Israel who were more unfit than Ahab and Jezebel! But I was exhausted, drained and faint, and the fear of death had clouded my mind. Only the gift of food from an angel sustained me on that terrible journey. For forty days and forty nights I ran, into the heart of the wilderness, into the wilderness of my own pride and fear and desperate longings. And for forty days and forty nights, God was silent, and in that echoing silence I heard my own half-formed thoughts grow uncomfortably loud.

It was only when I came to the mountain that the Lord spoke, and asked me what I did there. Out of my mouth it poured, all my frustration with recalcitrant Israel (as if God had not been bearing with them far, far longer than I had!) God’s answer was strange. He bid me stand upon the mountain in His presence (as Moses did? I wondered. And my terror was magnified, for he unleashed before me all the powers of earth: wind, earthquake and fire (like the fire upon Mount Carmel). And in all that power and terror, again God was silent, and I knew then that these things of great power were not where the Lord reveals His presence, for after these things of terror had passed by, in the absolute quietness that followed, was the tiniest thread of a voice, the faintest whisper. And in that silence, that weakness and stillness, I knew the presence of the Lord of Lords and King of kings, and I trembled and covered my head. For He who is mightiest can empty Himself to nothing, and in that silent place is a mystery far more deep and wonderful than the power I had foolishly desired.